When I work, either with photos or in my studio, I listen to audio books, either on my computer or on my iPod. Also when I run, which I do five or six days a week for an hour and a half, with my nano hooked to my shirt or jacket. It's up there with double espressos on my list of things that I absolutely can not do without during the course of my day. At the moment, I am listening - for maybe the third time - to William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, a book that markedly improves with repeat visits. The first time I read Pattern Recognition, I was still adjusting to Gibson's new, more mature voice. It took some time for me to absorb and process it. It feels starker than his earlier books, quieter, more monochromatic, more observant (though observation, in a very intense form, is his forté). By this third (or maybe fourth) reading (or listening), I find myself to be intensely bonded with this book. It now feels like a book I can slip into like a favorite shirt. It suits me. This book resonates more clearly for me than his earlier books because it relates to things that I truly understand (design, to put it simplistically) rather than things I wish I understood, like hacking.
My love affair with Gibson's books has survived so many eras and phases of my life that it's difficult for me now to remember a time that his work wasn't woven intimately into the fabric of my subconscious. In fact, I completely missed the '80s heyday of Gibson's work, when he was known as the "noir prophet" of cyberpunk, and credited with inventing the concept of cyberspace (or at very least coining the phrase). He was entirely off my radar at that point in my life.
Gibson's work was forced on me in about 1992 by a then-boyfriend whose rather puerile and obsessive devotion to science fiction puzzled and frankly annoyed me. He had shelves and shelves of it, which he read with the intensity and focus of a 14-year-old video arcade geek, rather than the 20-something professional he was. He had been campaigning for some time to convince me to read some of his favorites, with no success. The iron wall of my literary hauteur was impenetrable. I had read (and adored) Heinlein's Rocketship Galileo around age 9, and had found myself rather disturbed and out of my depth with Stranger in a Strange Land a couple of years later (I was precocious with my reading choices). After that, I really never ventured into sci fi again.
So I held my literary ground with that boyfriend, until one night when, in an unusually forgiving mood, I reluctantly allowed a worn and faded copy of a book called Neuromancer to be pressed into my palms. I can still remember the cover. The boyfriend sat me down on his leatherette sofa and made me promise to read for at least 20 minutes before making any sort of a judgement. He said that this was something different, something I didn't expect. He said that if, after the allotted time period, I could honestly say it left me cold, he would never bother me with it again.
Honestly, in that moment, I was feeling sorry for him. I could read just about anything for 20 minutes, I figured. I could do this much to make him happy. The next thing I remember was being interrupted mid-sentence and reprimanded by the boyfriend for having cracked the spine of his book. Seriously? We're talking a paperback here, not some signed first edition or anything. How is it, exactly, that one reads a book without cracking the spine? I beg you to tell me.
After that, I put on my coat and took the book home to the sanctuary of my own room, where I cracked the spine so thoroughly that it would sit open on the mattress without my having to prop it. I rested my chin on my hand, and went into what was arguably the deepest, most profound and visceral literary trance I've ever experienced. I didn't come up for air again until the last page of Neuromancer had been turned. I forgot that the world existed. Once I surfaced, I found myself desperate only to find another of this author's books, another trance, another hit, another deep, dark well to dive into.
The thing is, I'm not a science fiction reader. At all. I'm a classics girl - the proverbial English major weaned on Fitzgerald, Bronte, Shakespeare, Collette. And that's one of the things that makes Gibson great - he crosses demographic lines that are so deeply ingrained that they are rarely, if ever, crossed.
I am still not a reader of science fiction, though I have now read each and every one of Gibson's books at least four times, some of them many, many more. Some I go back into the way people study Shakespeare plays, or religious texts, revisiting important passages, studying the structure of a particularly eloquent paragraph or turn of phrase - finding new depth and new layers with each return.
If I had to pick a favorite, I'd have to go with Burning Chrome, which is a book of short stories. Not every fiction writer can pull off a short story - it is another animal entirely, and a very tricky species. Gibson, to my profound admiration, hits the nail on the head nearly every time. I have read Burning Chrome so many times that some passages are burned into my brain. They have taken on such a vivid life, in fact, that when I went searching through Google images for something with which to illustrate this post, I was surprised to find no images of the characters and settings that I see in my mind. There are, for instance, a few images from New Rose Hotel (and no, I'm not thinking of the movie) that I have visualized with such a perfect facsimile of reality that they pop up like my own personal memories, randomly, at different points in my life.
The search for good literature is ongoing, and Gibson is one of those authors I've come to count on, that I can return to time and again - even as I mature and my perspectives change - and find something worth revisiting. I don't think I've ever re-read a Gibson book without noticing something new, an altered perspective, a new resonance. And there are very, very few authors about whom I can say the same.
I'm pretty sure, incidentally, that I never gave the battered copy of Neuromancer back to the boyfriend who gave me the gift of Gibson. That boyfriend is long gone, faded into the pages of my distant past, but the book lives on as vividly as the day I first cracked its spine.